Sunburnt Home - an Australian-Sri Lankan novel
Chapter 15: Where did the white swans go?
The clouds began to come together and formed a thick, dark patch that
encroached upon the blue layer of the sky. Acting as a shield against
the afternoon sun, the clouds turned the surroundings into a much cooler
place. Jayadeva saw black swans like little ferries floating in the
silent waters of the Kelani River. He had seen black swans on a couple
of occasions in the Swan River at a distance.
--Why are swans black in Australia? Is it due to a mutation in the
From a lesson he learnt a long time ago, Jayadeva tried to apply
Darwinâ€(tm)s theory of 'Natural Selection' to trace the origins of
black swans. Until he came to Australia, Jayadeva believed that all
swans were white. That's what Sri Lanka has taught him. With his little
knowledge of Darwin's theory of 'Natural Selection', Jayadeva thought
that white swans would have lived in the land now known as Perth,
perhaps a long time ago, but for whatever the reasons, only the black
ones had survived.
--The black swans may be the result of some kind of an evolutionary
process thousands and thousands of years ago, which allowed them to
survive in the environment! Those birds may have passed on not only the
colours but their strength and ability to survive where their paler
No one mentions black swans in Sri Lanka. That's what you see around
and read in books. Likewise, no one speaks about white swans in Perth.
Even the State flag carries the image of a black swan. If they had white
swans in Australia, like in Sri Lanka, then their image would be all
over including the State flag. Isn't it amusing how nature produces a
different result in one place and another elsewhere?
Humming a few lines from a song by Amaradewa, Jayadeva came out of
the tent where he was resting. His work mate, Peter Ferguson and his
partner, Liz had decided to set up their camp closer to the lake.
Glancing over at Peter's tent and then his watch, Jayadeva wondered
whether it was time to get the fire ready for a barbecue.
When Jayadeva invited Peter and his wife for dinner at a nearby Karri
Valley Restaurant, he replied: "We'll have a barbecue, so you can cook
us a good barbecue curry chicken!"
he felt a bit nervous as he could not understand the irony of Peter's
words: a Good barbecue curry chicken!"
This is a good opportunity to prove that I can now make a barbecue as
well as curries...
Jayadeva had acquired cooking skills only after living in Australia
for a few years. As he came out with the hope of inviting Peter for a
beer, Asela came from nowhere with a sad face carrying a pocket radio.
"Dad, the Eagles have lost to Geelong! How could they beat us? We are
the best? We've never lost to Geelong before! We've beaten them twice in
three years! How come they won today?"
How can I teach him that winning and losing are essential parts of
life? Aren't they eternal truths? Have I won everything in Australia?
Why did I come here? Didn't I come to Australia because life was
becoming hectic in Sri Lanka? Civil war...bombs...education of
"What are you thinking Dad? Are you sad too that our team lost
Asela question broke Jayadevaâ€(tm)s reverie. Asela repeated his
question realising that his father was day dreaming.
Jayadeva was unsure what to tell his son.
--Shouldn't I teach him the lessons of losing and winning in life?
These are realities that affect everyone. It'll take at least twenty
years or more for him to grasp such realities...
"It's okay Putha, they'll win next time." Jayadeva consoled his son.
"No Dad, the Eagles haven't got enough points to get into the finals
Jayadeva told Asela a lesson from Buddhist scripts which highlights
winning and losing as an integral part of life.
"There was no Aussie Rules Footy during Buddha's time! It won't
explain why Geelong beat our West Coast Eagles, Dad!" Asela said
---Is that story too much for a boy of nine years?
Malini who heard the conversation between the father and son from
inside the tent called her son.
"Sam, come over here. I'll tell you why the Eagles lost today," and
Malini explained, "I think the Eagles players either didn't practise
enough, or they couldn't play well in Victoria. Perhaps some of the good
players were injured. Do you know who played today?"
Asela listened attentively.
Jayadeva preferred Malini's explanation. However, he was angry as he
didn't like her calling their son, Sam.
"Why are you calling him Sam? His name is Asela!" Jayadeva asked
"That's the question,Malini said and laughed.
" Why then your friends call you Jay at work, instead of Jayadeva? "
" Some of them can pronounce my name properly, Jayadeva", said
Malini smiled. You know how Aussies do things in Australia," she
continued, "They don't say Australians but Aussies. Fremantle is Freo.
Pemberton becomes Pembi and even Christmas is shortened as Chrissie!
Robert becomes Bob and Jayadeva becomes Jay! Do you want them to shorten
Asela's name into something nasty? Aussies love to abbreviate things.
Haven't you noticed that great Aussie tradition? You'd better start
calling him Sam before it's too late." Malini continued, "Though people
can pronounce my name Malini, I'm happy they call me Lee. Jay, don't try
to live on the fence!" She changed her tone and said, "We came here to
accept things as they are, and settle down. We can't be surrounded by
Australian things, culture, and traditions and still live with a Sri
Lankan mind like some of your friends. We need to follow Aussie rules!
Malini gaped at Jayadeva, and continued.
" That's why I sat for the AMC exam and did another internship in my
mid thirties! Did I complain? Aren't you happy here? Isn't Australia
better than Sri Lanka? Isn't your job far better than the one you had in
Mahaweli even though you are not a director here? There are no JVP
fellows to threaten us or for that matter Tamil terrorists. No influence
from MPs! We never had an outing like this in Sri Lanka. Yes it's true
that we had servants at home, and you never washed a plate or cooked a
meal!" Malini said passionately.
"Had you continued to work for Mahaweli in Kekirawa, your talents
would have been wasted like a wildflower in the bush. The world doesn't
get a chance to appreciate its beauty. Be thankful for the opportunities
you have in Australia. This is indeed a lucky country!" Malini said and
took a deep breath.
Jayadeva sat silently looking at the deep blue sky and didn't want to
respond to Malini. She left Jayadeva alone when the kids urged her to
join them. They wanted to feed the swans with bread crumbs.
"Dad, won't you come with us? You can have a closer look at these
black swans," Asela said. "We don't have black swans in Sri Lanka, do
we? You told me that yesterday."
"No, you'd better go and feed the birds. I'll have to catch up with
Peter. It's already getting dark and it may be too late to start a fire
for a barbecue."
The silence started growing once they left, and it soothed him, but
he was not happy. He came out of the tent and sat outside. He imagined
the still waters of the lake being stirred by the pleasant passage of
the swans. The water, blending with wind calmed down the warm weather.
In the distance the children were reaching out for swans. They appeared
to be very happy. They had not seen black swans outside of the Swan
River before and were enjoying this opportunity to feed them.
Jayadeva tried to recall the poems his father used to recite from
Hansa Sandesaya in which a swan carried a message to a designated place.
There was a particular stanza he admired which compared the swan to the
moon, implying that the swan was as pleasant as the rays emanating from
the moon. As he could not remember that stanza he tried to recall the
first stanza of Hansa Sandeshaya.
--How did the poet welcome the swan?
"Saerada hasa rada sanda
Piyakaru piyan piri piya
Piyowuru lesin hobana"
[Bless you noble swan
You carry a pleasant image
Resembling an image of
Curvy breasts of young maidens]
--Is it proper for the poet who was a Buddhist monk to compare the
swan with young maiden's breast? Or does it carry a deeper meaning of
nourishment of children as mothers breast feed their children.
His father, who was a school teacher used to recite classical poetry
in the morning and in the evenings sitting in the veranda. Jayadeva
tried to replay those beautiful melodies in his mind. The memories
brought a feeling of nostalgia.
--Were there any references to black swans in Sinhala literature?
Although the evening had brought darkness, Jayadeva was able to see
the edge of the lake clearly. He watched his family enjoying the scenery
sitting by the lake.
The only reason he never regretted leaving Sri Lanka was his
Australian salary. Also, after a recent visit to Sri Lanka, Jayadeva
realised that he could relax and enjoy driving his new car on Western
Australian roads and freeways more easily than driving a car on the
narrow roads in Sri Lanka.
---There are no undisciplined pedestrians and cyclists... no cattle,
dogs and bullock carts in Perth, and I suppose it is the same all over
When he converted his fortnightly salary into Sri Lankan rupees, a
feeling of relief settled in his heart. Even after paying their mortgage
and the loan for his new luxury car, it was not difficult for them to
save about two hundred dollars every month from Jayadeva's salary.
Malini also contributed to the mortgage and saved the money in a
separate account. If it was not for Malini's opposition, he would have
sent their entire savings into a Non-Resident Account in Sri Lanka.
Saving money in Australia meant paying penalties such as tax on the
interest from the income the government had already taxed for salaries.
Despite this, Malini preferred to save money in Australia for other
reasons such as buying shares and buying an investment property. As they
have decided to live in Nedlands; an upper middle class suburb in Perth,
and not attending Sri Lankan events had made other Sri Lankans uneasy
with Jayadeva and his family, as he heard from one of his Sri Lankan
--Does Abey really mean what he says, or is that mere envy? Have I
become another upper class white Australian in their own eyes? If it was
not for my father-in-law's money, we couldn't have bought the house in
Nedlands! Abey doesn't know that. He must be thinking that I'm earning
double his salary as I work in the private sector!
"Why are you staring at the beer cans?
He hadn't realised that Malini and the kids had already returned.
"Peter wanted to know why you didn't join us. He wanted to know
whether you are okay with camping! They wanted us to come over soon for
dinner, a barbecue."
Without responding to Malini he looked at the growing darkness
outside the tent. The clouds that had been forming a few hours earlier
had pushed the evening twilight away. The sky was absorbing the
inevitable dusk. As Jayadeva looked out, he saw the lake as a dark
desert he had once glimpsed from the air, some time ago.
The swans on the lake had merged with the distant horizon. He thought
that the black swans would soon disappear into the darkness which was
encroaching the land.
--Is it too late to start a fire for the barbecue?
He was not sure whether the darkness on the horizon was due to the
invading night or an overcast sky, preceding a rain. Jayadeva couldn't
decide whether to take a few cans of beer or good Sri Lankan tea to make
billy-tea for his Australian friends.
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Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and
incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used